Volleyball Report: Teams chasing postseason spots

The Big Ten will once again be well represented in the postseason with seven teams having virtually locked up their spots in next month’s NCAA Tournament. With two weeks remaining in the regular season two conference members are fighting for their postseason hopes as Northwestern and Wisconsin both remain in the chase.

Hope may have run out for Illinois after two losses this past week the Illini would need to win out over their final four matches and get some considerable help from the selection committee to get in. There is no definitive cut-off based on record but a team likely needs to be above .500 and four straight victories would still leave Illinois short of that mark. Last year’s national runner up appears to be on the outside looking in at the 2012 NCAA Tournament.

Following a program record 11-0 start for the Wildcats they have notched only four conference victories and sit at 15-12 with a trip to the state of Michigan scheduled for this weekend. Northwestern needs at least one win in their last four to remain above .500 but even that may not be enough despite a ranking of 50 in the RPI. The Badgers currently have an RPI of 65, which if you are going strictly by that ranking and the size of the 64-team field, that would leave them out.

Wisconsin also needs to win at least one of their final four matches or they will be in the precarious spot of having a .500 record like they did a season ago. The Badgers best chance for a win comes against Iowa this Friday night while Northwestern’s best shot is to knock off in-state rival Illinois at home next week.

Penn State Serving

Throughout the course of the year one of the nagging issues for the Nittany Lions has been that of their serving. Penn State has been one of the top serving teams in the Big Ten over the past few seasons and while their ace numbers remain among the nation’s elite their service errors had become a glaring weakness. That was until the past few weeks when they cut down on their number of errors while still remaining aggressive from the service line. Thursday night’s win against Illinois represented what the Nittany Lions are capable of as they kept their service errors in the single digits while racking up extensive runs from three different players to secure a convincing victory over the Illini.

[RELATED: See the latest Big Ten volleyball standings page at Big Ten.org.]

Penn State is 11th in the Big Ten in service errors with 241 in 95 sets played. Those 95 sets are tied for the least number of sets played by a Big Ten team and yet with fewer sets played than the rest of the conference, the Nittany Lions still have considerably more errors. Part of this comes from aggressive serving but with an ace to error ratio of 135 to 241, it has not been a banner year from the service line for Penn State. Ten times this season the Lions have recorded double-digit serving errors including in their only two losses, 13 against Oregon State and 11 against Nebraska.

Grading serving is more about gauging every match rather than looking at a box score as there is not an adequate public stat to represent the difficulty a serve causes an opponent if it is not an ace. Points that are created from overpasses or keeping a team out of system are only recorded on the stat sheet as the end result of the play rather than the difficulty of the serve.

Against Illinois, Penn State started the match with a six point serving run from Micha Hancock that took a 4-2 lead to 10-2, putting the Nittany Lions on the path to a 25-17 win. After trailing in set two, Maddie Martin served eight consecutive points to break a 17-17 tie, closing out the set and giving Penn State a 2-0 lead heading into the intermission.

Martin would continue with two more points to start set three before true freshman Kendall Pierce served 11 straight points to lift her team to a 14-1 advantage that would lead to the 17th sweep of the year for the Lions. Only five aces were recorded by Penn State in the match but you would have a tough time finding a better example of serving than the Nittany Lions’ display on Thursday night.

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Live on BTN/BTN2GO this week:

No. 9 Nebraska at No. 14 Minnesota
Fri., Nov. 16, 8 p.m. ET

With Penn State all but assured of a 15th Big Ten title, Nebraska and Minnesota will meet Friday night in a battle for second place. The Huskers took the first meeting in four sets in Lincoln but the Gophers had a chance to take a 2-0 lead after coming back from a five point deficit in set two before falling 27-25. Nebraska would win set three also by two points before winning the fourth 25-16.

Both of these teams dropped two matches in their weekend trips to the state of Michigan but while the Huskers have bounced back, it is still fresh in the minds of the Gophers. These two teams rely on great balance and the setter that gets more players involved on Friday night will likely carry their team to a win.

Mike Wolf is a BTN announcer and calls Big Ten volleyball matches on the Big Ten Network. His Volleyball Reports will appear on BTN.com every Tuesday for the rest of the Big Ten volleyball season. You can also follow our extended volleyball coverage on Twitter with @BTNvolleyball.

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